Students speak with a health professional. Photo courtesy of ICHS.

The conversation in Kim Hua’s classroom is a steady hum. Students sit in animated circles of five or six with health care workers from International Community Health Services (ICHS). Hua is the career center specialist at Seattle World School and the class is part of an innovative career preparation program called “Building Leadership: Building Healthy Communities.”

For the students, it’s a valuable chance to get an inside track on careers in a fast-growing field that needs workers. It’s also an opportunity to learn how they can play a role in removing barriers to health care for people of color. Ninety-eight percent of Seattle World School students are immigrants or refugees, and 97% qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Tran Cao a tenth grader, who was born in Vietnam, plans to attend college after high school. She says she’s here to get a jump on her future.

“I want to be a dental hygienist,” she says, when asked what area holds the most interest.

ICHS is hoping that the program, made possible by a two-year partnership with the school and a $70,000 grant from the Sheng-Yen Lu Foundation, will give students hands-on experience and training in medicine, as it helps the non-profit health center address a growing demand for culturally competent care. ICHS also provides students with care at Seattle World School’s onsite school-based health center.

Photo courtesy of ICHS.

“ICHS is committed to training the next generation of health care providers,” said Teresita Batayola, ICHS CEO. “What better way to do this than by partnering with our school-based health center. By supporting youth of color, we expand who has access to education and jobs in this sustainable and desirable field, as well as create new leaders who can provide transformative health care in their communities.”

The program combines classroom instruction with hands-on learning, job shadowing and mentorship. The Vietnamese Friendship Association will also provide career counseling so students can apply for health care jobs and secondary education programs. 

Today, a half dozen guests from ICHS represent a variety of health care fields, and a variety of cultures. They each addressed the class of mostly juniors and seniors, sometimes in their native language.

“I hope I can bring a message,” said Viktoriya Garkavi, dental clinical support supervisor at ICHS’s Bellevue Clinic. “A job takes a big chunk of life. You have to like it to succeed.” Garkavi, a first-generation immigrant, originally came to the U.S. from the Ukraine.  

Students appeared to embrace the opportunity. An observer overheard students enthusiastically asking questions that ranged from inquiries about education requirements to job stability. 

“While students at Seattle World School are extremely motivated to pursue their dreams, they may lack awareness of their options,” said Kate Ceronsky, nurse practitioner at ICHS and one of the program’s founders. “We are giving them tools for exploration, as well as a stepping stone for the future.”

Closing a cultural gap in health care

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care will add 2.4 million new jobs and grow 18% from 2016 to 2026, more than any other occupational group. The agency says this projected growth is due to an aging population that is placing greater demand on services. As a result, many areas of the U.S. are experiencing a shortage in primary care physicians, registered nurses and other certified health workers.

This labor shortage is occurring as minorities continue to face health care disparities. 

Research suggests that medical providers who give patients culturally competent care — which respects a person’s heritage and values — often see improved patient outcomes. 

“In increasing the numbers and diversity of qualified health professionals, ICHS is helping close persistent cultural gaps to create more vibrant communities that benefit us all,” said Batayola.

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